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Honoring John Hervey Wheeler

By Anthony Scott
  | Oct 15, 2019

Photos of ceremony to name a Durham federal building after John Hervey Wheeler

Around 100 people gathered at 323 E. Chapel Hill Street in Durham as a federal building was named for business leader and social justice advocate, John Hervey Wheeler.

This post is dedicated to the memory of Rep. Elijah Cummings (1951 - 2019).

In America, education has always been a key driver of economic opportunity, and equal access to education has always been an obstacle for African Americans. In the past, segregated schools meant that Black students were legally barred from equal access. Today, the student loan debt crisis disproportionately affects Blacks and other students of color, with for-profit colleges aggressively marketing expensive, low-quality programs to people of color. See, e.g., Quicksand: Borrowers of Color & the Student Debt Crisis, a report issued recently by our affiliate, the Center for Responsible Lending.

As we advocate for policies to make high-quality, affordable education more accessible for all, we honor John Hervey Wheeler, a North Carolinian who dedicated his life to bringing greater educational and economic opportunities to African Americans.

John Hervey Wheeler was never elected to a political office, but historians agree that that he exerted enormous influence in strengthening legal protections for all. In recognition of his contribution to civil rights, Wheeler was celebrated today in Durham, NC, when a federal courthouse building was officially named in his honor. It’s the same court building where equal funding for schools was ordered back in 1951. The event was attended by friends, family, associates of Wheeler and many who have benefited from his efforts.

Wheeler (1908-1978) was pivotal in spearheading legal challenges in North Carolina in the 1950s and 60s. His efforts led to court-ordered school desegregation decisions across the state, including the 1955 U.S. Supreme Court decision that desegregated UNC Chapel Hill. Wheeler’s early legal victories are said to have influenced the landmark 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision that desegregated public grade schools nationwide.

The North Carolina native graduated with honors from Morehouse College in Atlanta in 1929, and obtained his law degree from North Carolina Central University in 1947. Wheeler also enjoyed a career as a banker, serving as the president of Durham’s Mechanics & Farmers Bank from 1952-1978. In 1961 Wheeler was appointed by President John F. Kennedy to the President’s Committee on Equal Employment Opportunity. In 1963 Wheeler helped establish the North Carolina Fund to address issues of poverty in the state. John Hervey Wheeler was born in northeastern North Carolina, and is remembered by many to have often said, “The battle for freedom begins every morning.”

The federal building that now bears Wheeler’s name is located at 323 E. Chapel Hill Street. The building serves as Durham’s main post office and also houses U.S. District Court, U.S. Court of Appeals and U.S. Marshal’s offices.

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